At two o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, the 6th of the month, the reveille sounded, and the Australians commenced their preparations for the march to join Methuen's army. By 4 a.m. the mounted rifles led the way out of camp, and the toilsome march over rough and rocky ground commenced. The country was terribly rough as we drove the transports up and over the Orange River, and rougher still in the low kopjes on the other side. The heat was simply blistering, but the Australians did not seem to mind it to any great extent; they were simply feverish to get on to the front, but they had to hang back and guard the transports.
At last the hilly country faded behind us. We counted upon pushing on rapidly, but the African mules were a sorry lot, and could make but little headway in the sandy tracks. Still, there was no rest for the men, because at intervals one of Remington's scouts would turn up at a flying gallop, springing apparently from nowhere, out of the womb of the wilderness, to inform us that flying squads of Boers were hanging round us. But so carefully watchful were the Remingtons that the Boers had no chance of surprising us. No sooner did the scouts inform us of their approach in any direction than our rifles swung forward ready to give them a hearty Australian reception. This made the march long and toilsome, though we never had a chance to fire a shot. At 5.30 we marched with all our transports into Witteput, the wretched little mules being the only distressed portion of the contingent.
At Witteput the news reached us that a large party of the enemy had managed to pass between General Methuen's men and ourselves, and had invested Belmont, out of which place the British troops had driven them a few weeks previously. We had no authentic news concerning this movement. Our contingent spread out on the hot sand at Witteput, panting for a drop of rain from the lowering clouds that hung heavily overhead. Yet hot, tired, and thirsty as we were, we yet found time to look with wonder at the sky above us. The men from the land of the Southern Cross are used to gorgeous sunsets, but never had we looked upon anything like this. Great masses of coal-black clouds frowned down upon us, flanked by fiery crimson cloud banks, that looked as if they would rain blood, whilst the atmosphere was dense enough to half-stifle one. Now and again the thunder rolled out majestically, and the lightning flashed from the black clouds into the red, like bayonets through smoke banks.
Yet we had not long to wait and watch, for within half an hour after our arrival the Colonel galloped down into our midst just as the evening ration was being given out. He held a telegram aloft, and the stillness that fell over the camp was so deep that each man could hear his neighbour's heart beat. Then the Colonel's voice cut the stillness like a bugle call. "Men, we are needed at Belmont; the Boers are there in force, and we have been sent for to relieve the place. I'll want you in less than two hours." It was then the men showed their mettle. Up to their feet they leapt like one man, and they gave the Colonel a cheer that made the sullen, halting mules kick in their harness. "We are ready now, Colonel, we'll eat as we march," and the "old man" smiled, and gave the order to fall in, and they fell in, and as darkness closed upon the land they marched out of Witteput to the music of the falling rain and the thunder of heaven's artillery.
All night long it was march, halt, and "Bear a hand, men," for those thrice accursed mules failed us at every pinch. In vain the niggers plied the whips of green hide, vain their shouts of encouragement, or painfully shrill anathemas; the mules had the whip hand of us, and they kept it. But, in spite of it all, in the chilly dawn of the African morning, our fellows, with their shoulders well back, and heads held high, marched into Belmont, with every man safe and sound, and every waggon complete.
Then the Gordons turned out and gave us a cheer, for they had passed us in the train as we crossed the line above Witteput, and they knew, those veterans from Indian wars, what our raw Volunteers had done; they had been on their feet from two o'clock on Wednesday morning until five o'clock of the following day, with the heat at 122 in the shade, and bitter was their wrath when they learnt that the Boer spies, who swarm all over the country, had heralded their coming, so that the enemy had only waited to plant a few shells into Belmont before disappearing into the hills beyond. That was the cruel part of it. They did not mind the fatigue, they did not worry about the thirst or the hunger, but to be robbed of a chance to show the world what they could do in the teeth of the enemy was gall and wormwood to them, and the curses they sent after the discreet Boer were weird, quaint, picturesque, and painfully prolific.
We are lying with the Gordons now, waiting for the Boers to come along and try to take Belmont, and our fellows and the "Scotties" are particularly good chums, and it is the cordial wish of both that they may some day give the enemy a taste of the bayonet together.